Friday June 14, 2019

The Vanishing Family Farm

Census shows fewer farms, bigger operations in NYS
By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

    The number of farms has declined dramatically in New York in the last few decades and smaller, family-owned farms have been affected the most.

    New York has 33,438 farms as of 2017 and the average size is 441 acres. In 1959, New York had 51,554 farms, with an average size of 362.60 acres, according to the US Census of Agriculture released in April.

    The state’s decrease to 35% fewer farms, along with the average farm sizes increasing, indicates that that more large farms have developed — and fewer family farms still operate.

    Despite the dismal statistics relating to so many small farms, a few trends provide hope for the family farm.

    Instead of mono-cropping or raising one type of livestock, a growing number of farms are taking a page from Old MacDonald and diversifying what they raise.

    “Diversification can help farms spread their risk,” Steve Ammerman, New York Farm Bureau public affairs manager. “Whether it is growing multiple crops, raising different breeds of livestock or contracting out their services to other farms, diversification can provide additional income and protect a farm should they experience a loss in one particular area.”

    Ammerman said that many successful small farmers profit through value-added and specialty products. For example, a fruit farmer may make fruit jelly and jam. A maple syrup maker might make maple candy.

    “This may involve processing themselves, growing unusual varieties or have an alternative production method that consumers are willing to pay more for,” Ammerman said.

    Cornell offers numerous resources for learning about food processing that have helped many producers learn how to make their own value-added products in commercial kitchens. The Department of Agriculture & Markets also aids farmers in how to set up their own commercial operation.

    Of course, value-added products can mean additional upfront costs, “but could earn a farm more in the long run depending on the market,” Ammerman said. “This could be especially important in today’s farm economy where prices have been low across the board. Any way to set themselves apart in the marketplace and earn more for what they produce could be especially beneficial today.”

    Growing organically, raising animals in pastures, using integrated pest management and choosing rare and heirloom varieties and species are all examples of specialty farming that can garner higher prices for farmers because it costs more to produce and because they align with consumer trends.

    Direct selling represents yet another way small farmers are surviving. Instead of selling wholesale to processors or distributors, direct selling means that the farmer markets and sells to those who will use their goods through a farm store, farmers’ markets, website and community supported agriculture (CSA) program.

    A CSA builds in a measure of predictability and security for farmers since they receive a certain amount of money per season upfront from individuals for a set number of boxes of produce in season. Some CSAs operate only spring through fall; others function year-round, relying on foods such as greenhouse grown products, apples and root crops during winter. Some CSAs include local goods such as baked goods to flesh out their offerings.

    “Agritourism” — a combination of agriculture and tourism — provides yet another means of earning income. Some open their grounds to guests year-round or seasonally; others open only during special events. Since most people now are at least a generation or two away from farming, it’s novel to visit a farm to pick their own pumpkins, go on a hayride or pet goats.

    Agritourism also meshes with several cultural trends, including the “locavore” movement, which encourages consumers to know the sources of their food and patronize local farms.

    Decorating trends that hearken back to farmhouse decor also bespeaks the interest consumers hold in agriculture as well as the farm wedding. The latter has spurred farms to open their grounds as wedding venues, which can lend a bucolic charm to nuptials, as well as provide more options for brides struggling to find a place to wed.

    Dick de Graff, owner of Grindstone Farm, has found many of these different means of keeping his farm profitable. De Graff farms 40 acres of fruits and vegetables in Pulaski, plus livestock. He purchased his land in 1981. De Graff decided to transition to certified organic beginning in 1986 because he didn’t feel comfortable with using chemical sprays.

    He also raises non-certified, all-natural, pasture-raised, free-range chickens, turkeys and pigs. De Graff sells through farmers’ markets in Watertown, Oswego and Pulaski, his CSA (which include input from other local farms), and through agritourism. He sells a small amount to wholesalers.

    He added animals to diversify and also to augment his produce. Animals represent an important a part of the philosophy of certified organic farms by providing fertilizer and minimizing pests. Poultry eat numerous insects and pigs eat produce that de Graff can’t sell, though he does buy organic feed as needed.

    The diversity helps de Graff’s farm thrive.

    “Typically in any year, we lose a crop or part of one,” he said.

    He thinks that the growth in demand for organic has helped his farm and others’ do better, although many supermarkets carry organic foods supplied by large farms.

    “That hurts the little guy,” de Graff said.

    His operation diversity also includes fabricating and selling root crop washing equipment, which he ships nationwide. That keeps him busy during the winter months.

    De Graff’s agritourism efforts include a Chef Challenge. Each chef receives a box of goods from the farm and has two hours to make a three or five-course meal for 30 guests.

    “It turned out to be pretty successful,” de Graff said. “Some of the chefs like doing this.”

    Last fall, he held the farm’s first Farm-to-Table event, which featured an area chef creating and the farm serving a five-course meal for 85 under a tent. Grindstone provided nearly all the food.

     A few items came from local farms. Though the event wasn’t hugely profitable, de Graff said that he hopes to fine tune the event and offer it again.

    DeGraff said that farmers should become associated with farm organizations. He’s involved with Farm Bureau, Northeast Organic Farming Association-NY and Cornell Cooperative Extension in Oswego County. He’s also a member of the Pulaski Chamber of Commerce.

    “To me, involvement is key in success of agriculture,” de Graff said. “We as farmers have more in common with other farmers than we think.”

    DeGraff serves on a board that’s looking into starting a food hub among farmers in Oswego, Lewis, Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties. It would include locally grown foods, including processed foods, such as a farm that makes its own sausages.

    “It’s an excellent way for small scale farmers to plug into a wholesale or cooperative agreement to get things to market,” de Graff said. “We have a warehouse, trucks and infrastructure. We’re hoping to get more growers on board.”